Writer with real stars in his eyes

Special to The Times

As news of Jonah Nolan's hiring to draft a screenplay for the potential Steven Spielberg-directed science fiction epic "Interstellar" rippled through cyberspace last week, Nolan admitted to a little starry-eyed wonder.

"I have a better understanding of what those NASA astronauts feel like as they're about to get blasted off into outer space [when I was] waiting to go pitch ideas to Lynda Obst and Steven Spielberg," Nolan says of his meeting in January. "I'm not even sure if I remember what I told them, but they must have liked something. It was a pretty intense experience."

Indeed they did. Now, as soon as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter helps director-brother Chris finalize prep for the "Batman Begins" sequel "The Dark Knight," for which Nolan penned the screenplay, his next job will entail adapting the mind-bending treatment written by Obst and physicist Dr. Kip S. Thorne into a narrative screenplay for the potential Paramount Pictures tent pole.

It's a project that has its genesis in the two-decades-long friendship between Obst, an astronomy enthusiast who produced "The Siege" and "The Fisher King," and Thorne, the Feynman professor of theoretical physics at Caltech. (When Obst was producing "Contact," adapted by screenwriters James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg from Carl Sagan's novel, Thorne conceptualized a wormhole sequence for the film that also advanced the field of theoretical physics.)

Over the years, Thorne's work on gravitational-wave detectors, which calculate negative space in things like black holes and imploding galaxies, has been at the very front edge of Einsteinian astrophysics. At one point Obst and Thorne were brainstorming about, as Obst puts it, "the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans," and crafted a potential cinematic scenario that hooked Spielberg enough to consider directing.

Enter Nolan, whose clever, brain-twisting creativity elevated "Memento" and "The Prestige," both directed by Chris, above their erstwhile genre material. Nolan's original short story, "Memento Mori," was the basis for his brother's screenplay for "Memento," which earned them both Oscar nominations. According to Obst, Nolan took the "Interstellar" treatment's "basic idea" and "added a time element that none of us had thought of." (Obst and Thorne may retain story credit on "Interstellar.")

"It really is true that truth is stranger than fiction, and we want to explore some of that," says Nolan, who as a young boy loved to watch old 8-millimeter NASA film strips of Saturn V launches with older brother Chris. "A lot of the narrative will be suggested by some of these amazing ideas that Dr. Thorne has been working on -- his accumulated knowledge of the wonders of the universe. I'm going to immerse myself as much as my feeble little mind can wrap itself around some of these concepts and the narrative will emerge."

Spielberg, who's currently working on the fourth installment of the "Indiana Jones" saga scripted by David Koepp, has a long history of exploring the sci-fi realm.

This would be the first time, however, that Spielberg does not remain Earthbound. "Interstellar" has been described as an effects-laden exploration in the tradition of "2001: A Space Odyssey," written by Arthur C. Clarke and original "A.I." developer Stanley Kubrick.

"The truth is, since I watched 'Close Encounters' when I was probably 7 or 8, I've been waiting for Mr. Spielberg to make this movie," says Nolan, now 30. "That I have anything to do with it is mind-blowing."

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The way of the hired gun

For a while there it looked as if Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The Usual Suspects," had pulled a Keyser Soze of his own. (The disappearance part, not the multiple murders).

But like the diabolical criminal mastermind he invented, McQuarrie was in fact always toiling hard behind the scenes even when his characters weren't spouting his ragged chatter on the big screen.

McQuarrie has worked on dozens of projects since that cinematic puzzle box became one of the more widely quoted screenplays since "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But in a too-common byproduct of a maddening industry, McQuarrie hasn't had a produced credit (sometimes by choice) since his writing-directing debut, "The Way of the Gun," seven years ago.

A much-needed creative sabbatical in Mallorca and Denmark over the summer of 2006 has apparently paid some major karmic dividends: McQuarrie is reteaming with "Suspects" director Bryan Singer on an untitled thriller that he co-wrote with his former assistant, Nathan Alexander, based on a real-life attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II. Tom Cruise has attached himself to star.

This good news came on the heels of the greenlight McQuarrie got to direct "The Stanford Prison Experiment" for Maverick Films. Also based on a true story, "Stanford" was co-scripted with Tim Talbott, and McQuarrie will begin principal photography on the drama after the World War II project wraps.

"It's feast or famine," says McQuarrie, 38, who is also producing the two films.

"For seven years you're trying to get something made and then suddenly everything's getting made all at the same time," he said. "I'm so unaccustomed to it, it's actually more stressful than wondering where your next job's going to come from."

It's a frustrating plight for gifted, successful screenwriters -- the "golden handcuffs" -- in which a writer tries to underwrite passionate spec work with big-paycheck studio rewrites. The money is nice (and necessary), but when, for whatever catalog of predictable reasons -- budget too big, period material, studio head fired, can't find an "approved" director -- you can't get your specs off the ground, the resultant rhythm of disappointment almost becomes a perverse comfort.

"It's managed expectation," McQuarrie says with a mix of grizzled confidence and amused resignation. "You learn to celebrate the positives. You never really think beyond the next step. I'll believe that these movies are real when I'm paying $20 to see them. And that's how I protect myself. In the meantime, you have a wonderful time. You're not really stressing about anything except the work at hand."

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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